Two men I’ve been reading about for virtually my entire life but for very different reasons died on the exact same day. For more than 50 years, I have been learning about the life and thought of both President John F. Kennedy and Christian thinker and author C. S. Lewis.
What follows is a brief biography of these two twentieth-century giants and an explanation of how they became so important in my life. I think you will benefit from knowing about these two men whose lives influenced millions.
John F. Kennedy (1917–1963)
“Jack” Kennedy, as he was known to his family and friends, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. He served in World War II, was a representative and senator in the US Congress, and became the 35th president. The high mark of his presidency was probably his successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, where some think his leadership kept the world from engaging in a nuclear holocaust. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
My parents were new Catholic converts and Kennedy Democrats in the early 1960s and the president’s assassination was the first great historical event of my young life. I have more than 50 books in my personal library about Kennedy’s life, political views, and shocking assassination.
C. S. Lewis (1898–1963)
“Jack” Lewis, as he was known to his family and friends, was born in Belfast, Ireland. He served in World War I, taught English literature at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and became one of the greatest Christian authors in history. His fictional writings rank among the best-selling books in history and he became a celebrated BBC broadcaster during World War II. C. S. Lewis died of cancer on November 22, 1963.
C. S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity was the first Christian book that I ever read back when I was in college. It had a significant impact on my then newfound faith and it sparked my interest in studying Christian theology and apologetics. Similarly, I have more than 50 books in my personal library about Lewis’s life, beliefs, and writings.
A Fateful Day
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I discovered that both men had died on the same day: November 22, 1963. While reading Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft’s provocative book Between Heaven and Hell,1 I learned that Kennedy, Lewis, and philosopher Aldous Huxley had all died the same day. (There’s a saying that celebrities die in threes.)
I have wondered who had the greater influence between Kennedy and Lewis. They’ve both become legendary figures with an enduring popularity. But their influence lies in different spheres and is thus difficult to measure and compare. Twenty-five years ago I would have thought Kennedy’s largely political influence was greater. But today I’m inclined to think Lewis’s spiritual influence may be more significant.
I have visited both men’s homes and graves. Kennedy seems to have been a nominal Catholic but may have been pondering the bigger questions of life just prior to his death. Lewis thought that five years after his death he would be forgotten, but his books sell better today than they did when he was living.
It is interesting to me that I have spent so much time learning about two deeply influential men of the twentieth century with very different lives, beliefs, and accomplishments, yet both died within hours of one another on the exact same day. They entered eternity at the same time. I wonder what their last thoughts were before death and their first thoughts after death.
Christians believe that despite all of its tragedies and troubles, God is the ultimate author of history. And for me, real-life history and biography is every bit as fascinating as fiction (for which Lewis is celebrated) is to many other people.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which contemporary historical figures have had a big influence on you? Why?
- For my thoughts about President Kennedy 50 years after his death, see “The JFK Assassination Plus 50: The Five Most Interesting Books on President Kennedy’s Death.”
- For how President Kennedy’s death influenced my family and me, see “November 22, 1963: The Day I Became an American.”
- For my thoughts about C. S. Lewis 50 years after his death, see my two-part series:
- Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982).